Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A qualified pessimism

At Mosaic Yuval Levin responds to Eric Cohen's attempt to articulate "a coherent Jewish conservatism for America and Israel." Debates among those on the right in the '50s and '60s produced an amalgam that its proponents called "fusionism." Levin provides a rather nice summary of the "fusionism" that is mainstream conservatism today although rejected by the purest libertarians and many traditionalists.
.... Their fusionism aimed to combine three elements that, although making for an uneasy fit, seemed to embody the key constituent parts of the modern American right: social traditionalism, a hawkish defense posture, and market economics. Ronald Reagan liked to call this the “three-legged stool” of American conservatism.

.... Traditionalists, defense hawks, and capitalists are not merely allies of convenience, nor are they united only by some common adversaries. They are deeply linked by a common anthropology: an understanding of human nature that qualifies as profoundly contrarian in our liberal age.

What unifies the three strands of modern American conservatism is a qualified pessimism about human perfectibility. Conservatives see the human person as a fallen and imperfect being, given to excess and prone to iniquity yet possessed of fundamental dignity and of inalienable rights that demand to be respected. Given their high standards but low expectations in human affairs, conservatives tend to be deeply skeptical of all utopian ambitions—be those ambitions aimed at socializing the sinfulness out of man, at achieving perpetual peace through sweet reason, or at equalizing wealth without extinguishing its sources. Instead, conservatives’ hopes lie in the potential of the long-evolved institutions of society—traditional families and moral communities, liberal education, free markets, carefully limited government, and more—to counteract our worst excesses, habituate us to the virtuous life, point us toward the deepest truths, and make us worthy of freedom and capable of exercising and defending it.

A fusionist conservatism is therefore coherent and reasonable—it makes sense of those elements of modern liberal societies that are skeptical rather than confident about reason, social rather than technical in their means, and generational rather than messianic in their ends. .... [more]
The rest of Levin's essay articulates what he believes are the difficulties confronting those who would design an American (or Israeli) Jewish conservatism — not so much with respect to the first two legs of Reagan's footstool, but, possibly, the third.